Flavors from the Far East

May 1, 2009 (CHICAGO) Some of them are on a larger scale than others.

One in particular has been pulling in large crowds, partly for the scene but mostly for the food.

The team behind Rockit Bar and Grill has spent the last two years planning for Sunda. They gutted a River North space, hired a world class architect, and brought in a chef from LA, with a strong sense of his Filipino heritage. Add it all up, and you get a sexy, large scale, pan-Asian experience with a high-octane menu to boot.

At first glance, Sunda could be mistaken as just another trendy hotspot; there's no shortage of pretty people sipping cocktails and digging into sushi and sashimi. But on closer inspection, this pan-Asian beauty has more substance and nuance than you'd think.

"I wanted to share my experiences in the dishes that I had from my travels over the last two years," said Executive Chef Rodelio Aglibot.

By "travels," that could mean a Japanese-inspired ngiri of burnt watermelon and unagi, a type of eel. Brown sugar and chile peppers are torched and carmelized on the watermelon, then the unagi "bacon" is placed atop, covered in a swath of unagi sauce with bits of fresh mango. Roasted duck hash salad also has an unagi glaze arriving with a daikon cake and a crispy egg. Then it's off to China, for steamed buns filled with either duck or pork.

"When you're in China, when people say I want meat in my dish, they don't think about it being beef, it's pork," said Aglibot.

Another taste of China: Hainese-style chicken breast in a sweet soy glaze, plus ginger-scallion pesto for oomph.

Grilled ahi tuna and pork is another tasty combo, a dose of chili vinegar, fresh mango and sweet onions give it further complexity.

Speaking of which, the chef's signature sushi is a must: sushi rice is caramelized in soy and butter, rendering it crispy outside. Topped with a choice of tuna, shrimp, or in this case, fatty wagyu beef tartare, it's a bizarre combo that actually works. Thai-inspired crispy soft shell crabs rest on a bed of dried chiles; shallots, scallions and toasted garlic give it additional punch. Even side dishes are rendered with care, like the crispy cauliflower tossed with garlic, miso and chiles.

Sunda offers a wide range of tastes from all over Asia making the menu a little unwieldy. But in some ways, it's the chef's grand experiment, subject to frequent updates and alterations as he sees fit.

"It just gave me a real, a lot of more creative license to, you know to really do a lot of different things here that people might not consider being New Asian," Aglibot said.

All of that glamour does not come cheap. But you can certainly order a few smaller plates and get a taste of the restaurant without going broke.

110 W. Illinois St.

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